When I started my undergraduate degree in music, I must say that I had never thought about gender in relation to the music I was studying or playing. I never considered the fact that all of the composers I had studied at school had been men, or that (looking back) it was clear to see that there were clear gender divides taking place in our school orchestra. I distinctly remember the few students who were playing gender non-conforming instruments (a boy in my year playing the flute, and a girl in the year above playing the tuba) being made fun of for being different but at the time it never occurred to me that the reason they didn’t ‘fit in’ was potentially because of their instrument choice.
During my first year of my undergraduate degree the issue of gender was mentioned in a module, and I have been interested in studying the issue ever since. As I have progressed through academia, I have found that the issue of gender is pervasive and entwined within all aspects of music making from the choices we make as musicians, to the way that the media talks about artists. I feel that part of the reason why this issue is still so prevalent is that in the past it has not been discussed enough, and not enough has been done to call out those in the media who are writing misogynistic and sexist pieces.
Many musicologists have written about the link between music and gender. Research by McClary, Cusick and others has shown that gender impacts many aspects of music making, including the ways in which male and female musicians are viewed differently by society and the media. Many academics have written about the phenomena, whereby female musicians are not always treated in the same way as their male counterparts within the western media. For example, Alison Faupel & Vaughn Schmutz have argued that within popular music women are ‘more likely to have their physical appearance or personal relationships discussed’. While a male artist can expect reviews of their new album to focus on the sound of the music, the lyrics and the style, female artists can instead expect reviews to spend a disproportionate amount of time discussing the way the artist looks on their album cover, or what dance moves they are performing in their new music video. This is so extensive that it would seem female artists’ appearances are more important than their musical talents.
This topic has recently re-entered the mainstream media, in light of the release of the new Britney Spears documentary, Framing Britney Spears (February 2021). The documentary delves into the ways in which Spears was treated by the media at the height of her career in the 2000s. It shows how media outlets repeatedly commented on her weight, ‘slut shamed’ her and even printed paparazzi upskirt photos of her. The documentary features many clips from interviews with Spears at the time. One of them was done by Dutch journalist Ivo Niehe, who interviewed Spears when she was only 17 years old. During the interview he said: “There’s one subject we didn’t discuss… your breasts. You seem to get furious when a talk-show host comes up with this subject. In general, what do you think about breast implants?”
I wish I could say that I was surprised by the documentary and how Britney Spears was treated, however nothing about the treatment of women in music is surprising to me. Despite knowing what to expect when I began watching, I was still appalled to see the way male interviewers spoke to Spears and particularly some of the comments from male paparazzi members. One member of the paparazzi suggested that Spears was fine with being followed by them, as she hadn’t explicitly told them it was upsetting to her. However, Spears was a young vulnerable woman at the time who likely didn’t feel comfortable or safe going up to older men who were following her – I know I wouldn’t. Just because she didn’t explicitly say she was uncomfortable, does not mean she wasn’t.
In response to the documentary, there has been an outpouring of online support for Spears, with fans and fellow artists speaking out about her treatment by the media. One such comment came from Hayley Williams of the band Paramore, who tweeted:
“no artist today would have to endure the literal torture that media/society/utter misogynysts inflicted upon her. the mental health awareness conversation, culturally, could never be where it is without the awful price she has paid”.
Whilst Williams has a point that as a society we are certainly more aware of the sexism that takes place within the music industry, I am not sure that we have really moved that much further in terms of fixing this issue and ensuring that female artists are treated in a respectful and equal manner to their male counterparts. The quotes below are just a small number of examples from recent publications of the manner in which women are discussed by journalists, and most unsettlingly not all of these sexist statements were written by men. Astonishingly, both male and female journalists within the music press are diminishing female artists to their looks and not to their musical abilities.
“Rita Ora turns ultimate sex kitten for red-hot new video… Stripping down to a white crop-top and blue jeans combo, the Anywhere songstress looked hotter than ever as she flashed her gym-honed frame”. Daily Star, Rita Ora Turns Ultimate Sex Kitten For Red Hot New Video, 2019
“Curvaceous and pretty in a dress… I ask the seemingly preposterous question. It’s fine, she assures me. They’re real lips, I mean”. T Magazine, A Star Is Born (And Scorned), 2012
“She is luminous, with that perfect smile and smooth coffee skin hat shines under a blondish topknot band bangs. Today she’s showing none of the bodaciously thick, hush-your-mouth body that’s on display onstage, in her videos, and on these pages”. GQ Miss Millennium: Beyonce, 2013
“Despite unforgiving paparazzi shots of the work on her face, she was shockingly beautiful up close”. NY Times Madonna At Sixty, 2019
“The look was far from the wisecracking, gum-snapping, thick-eyebrowed girl of the 1980s who didn’t shave her armpits”. NY Times Madonna At Sixty, 2019
“We’re pretty sure that Ariana Grande is the only person on the PLANET who can look sweet & innocent AND totally hot & sexy at the same time”. Capital FM Capital’s Sexiest Female In Pop, 2016
These examples are typical of the reception female artists receive from the music press and illustrate the objectifying and degrading nature of the articles. In my opinion, the comments ‘sexy’, ‘curvaceous’ and ‘hot’ should have no place within an article which is meant to be a credible review of a piece of work. This relegation to appearance serves to ‘other’ these artists from the mainstream music industry where the work of men is typically judged solely on the music.
The reason these comments are so problematic and need to be addressed, links back to Hayley Williams’s tweet about mental health referenced above. The treatment of these female artists can be extremely damaging not only to the mental health and wellbeing of the artist in question, but also of all the young girls reading the articles. These comments perpetuate stereotypes about what a woman should look like which often have negative ffects on girls who then feel that they do not fit into this narrow box. Moreover, the more that comments like this are allowed to be published, the more it becomes ingrained that these are acceptable viewpoints, making it alright to talk about women in this manner.
Framing Britney Spears is an important documentary that can help to shed light on this issue that arguably affects all women in the music industry. I feel that this can play a significant role in the ongoing discussions around misogyny and sexism going forward, as we work to create a music industry that is fair and treats all artists as equal, regardless of gender.
Therefore, I think it is incredibly important that we work as a society to ensure that female artists are discussed in reference to their music and not their looks – in the way their male counterparts are already treated. We need to work to call out the type of articles referenced above when we see them, and sustain and advance the conversations about mental health and wellbeing.
I think the first step we can all do, is to call out articles and authors when we read something that doesn’t sit right with us. In today’s age, that has never been easier with the help of social media sites such as Twitter. If enough people are tweeting a company or outlet about an inappropriate article, the company will eventually have to respond and hopefully remove these pieces. Of course, in an ideal world, media companies would make sure that they aren’t publishing or releasing anything that is misogynistic or sexist in the first place. But until that time comes, I strongly believe that being vocal about our opinions is the best tool we all have, and that social media allows us all to have a voice and stand up for what we believe in.
Brown, J. A Star Is Born (And Scorned) (2012). Available Online: https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/09/a-star-is-born-and-scorned/?mtrref=undefined&gwh=80b0ecd5b3055c85ca1c6bf3d9ce77d1&gwt=pay [Accessed 29/05/19]
Capital FM. Capital’s Sexiest Female In Pop 2016: The Winners (2016). Available Online: https://www.capitalfm.com/features/sexy-female-popstars-celebrities-2016/ [Accessed 24/06/19]
Faupel, A. & V, Schmutz. ‘From Fallen Women To Madonna’s: Changing Gender Stereotypes In Popular Music Critical Discourse’, Sociologie De L’art, Vol. 18 No. 3 (2011): 15-34
Framing Britney Spears. Directed by Samantha Stark [TV documentary]. (Sky Documentaries, 16 February 2021, 21:00)
Grigoriadis, V. Madonna At Sixty (2019). Available Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/magazine/madonna-madame-x.html [Accessed 04/06/19]
Harwick, J. Rita Ora Turns Ultimate Sex Kitten For Red Hot New Video (2019). Available Online: https://www.dailystar.co.uk/showbiz-tv/music/787094/rita-ora-ritual-video-jonas-blue [Accessed 24/06/19]
Juzwiak, R. Review: Mariah Carey, Butterfly (2003). Available Online: https://www.slantmagazine.com/music/mariah-carey-butterfly/ [Accessed 24/06/19]
Wallace, A. Miss Millennium: Beyonce (2013). Available Online: https://www.gq.com/story/beyonce-cover-story-interview-gq-february-2013 [Accessed 04/06/19]
Williams, H. The Framing Britney Spear doc holy fuck. No artist today would have to endure the literal torture that media/society/utter misogynsts inflicted upon her. The mental health awareness conversation, culturally, could never be where it is without the awful price she has paid [Twitter]. 6th February 2021. Available online: https://twitter.com/yelyahwilliams/status/1358093963467620360?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1358093963467620360%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_c10&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nme.com%2Fnews%2Fmusic%2Fstars-react-framing-britney-spears-documentary-2875517 [Accessed 07/04/2021]
About the author:
My name is Alice Borrett and I am working towards a PhD at the University of Hull. I first joined the University in 2015 studying for a BA in Music, and have subsequently completed a MMus. My PhD research area is within the sphere of feminist musicology, examining access for women into music. My MMus dissertation investigated the historical gender ideals that stopped women from being able to participate in musical activities to the same extent as their male counterparts. Following on from this, my thesis focuses on the gendering of musical instruments, and how gender is enacted in a way to ensure the gender divide is maintained.